Separation Of Church & State: A Challenged Principle
American political values rest on several fundamental principles clearly stated by the founders of our republic. We do not debate the separation of powers or the supremacy of civilian dominance of military forces. Strangely however, there is an open and active resistance to the concept of a separation of church and state. Yet, this idea should be a most natural policy when it is remembered that most European settlers came here to escape tyrannies where church and state were combined. They were keenly aware of the abuse of power when two of the most conservative social forces conjoin.
Separation is imperative because of the potential for religion to sanctify evil and claim divine approval for misdeeds. However, while it is important and necessary to keep a constant vigil to block the collusion of church and state, the task is difficult because of public apathy and a shortage of funds.
There are, nonetheless, a number of religious denominations which are active in supporting the separation principle. They support organizations that monitor the many attempts to breach the wall of separation. It is costly to hire lawyers to bring the cases into court, support the publication of journals and maintain a speaker’s bureau to hold meetings for public education.
The most durable and powerful source of support are the words of those who wrote the original documents such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Also useful, are the opinions given in Supreme Court decisions. Former President, James Madison declared that, “The number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State”. This should carry special weight since Madison was regarded as “the Father of the Constitution”.
Thomas Jefferson made a direct connection between the principle of separation and the Constitution (1st Amendment) in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Church in 1802. Jefferson writes, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state”.
A recent issue of one of these journals gives a list of the kinds of actions they expect from the new members of Congress. It will be evident that there will be no rest for those who struggle to keep a “wall of separation” between church and state. First will be a new effort to advance “voucher schemes” that John Boehner (House) and Mitch McConnell (Senate) call “school choice expansion”. They are actually referring to charter schools. Others (e.g. Ted Cruz), have vouchers in mind. These “schemes” are a way to funnel taxpayer money to sectarian schools.
Analysts are expecting an increase in what is called “religious freedom exemptions” made possible as a consequence of the Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores. It will be recalled, that in this case certain employers could now, on the grounds of religious freedom, make medical decisions effecting employees. It is supposed that the door has been opened for more extensions of religious liberty. It is likely that there will be attempts to expand the teaching of creationism and to restore prayer in public schools.
There is some concern about the increase in the practice of some churches to abuse their tax exempt status by becoming involved in partisan elections. A study of voting turnout of the 2014 election shows that the religious right had a much larger voter turnout while there was a notable decline in other voter categories. Ralph Reed is reported to have openly stated that his group distributed 20 million voter guides in 117,000 churches. These guides were claimed to have been given to Republican voters.
On my desk are two journals that I have supported for 30 and 40 years respectively. Both have been reporters of the whole range of issues involving the separation of church and state. It is saddening to conclude that there is little improvement in maintaining the “wall of separation” from abuse. Our efforts appear to be somewhat like those who fight forest fires. After you have struggled painfully and get out that fire, you get word that there are two more up the road.
Allan Powell, Professor Emeritus, Philosophy, HCC